I met Billy for lunch Friday. He took me a few blocks from campus to a little hole-in-the-wall place called Mai's Vietnamese Restaurant. From the outside, it looked like it might have been an old liquor store from decades ago, complete with bars on the windows and doors. I wasn't sure what to expect when I walked inside.
We were the first ones there, it being shortly after 11:00. A flocked Christmas tree was centered in the room, and all the tables were covered with red or green tablecloths. The walls were decorated with various forms of Asian art: fans, painted screens, photos of Vietnamese fishing boats, etc. We were seated at a small table for two right next to the cashier's counter. Perched along the edges of the counter were flowers and greenery, a fat wooden Buddha, a bowl of fortune cookies, a stack of business cards, and some take-out menus (which I now wish I had gotten one of).
The hostess turned on some music after seating us. Before any singing started, I thought we were going to be listening to some authentic Vietnamese music. Then I heard the familiar words of Christmas carols being sung in an Asian accent. We soon had a moment reminiscent of A Christmas Story: "Jingle Bells" came on. That was followed by a Christmas medley, then a Christmas carol in Vietnamese. All of a sudden we heard a Vietnamese version of what sounded like "Polly Wolly Doodle". That was followed by Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You" - only it was sung by the same Asian voices. The whole musical experience was surreal. I'd love to go back after Christmas sometime to see what their typical music is like.
The lunch specials on the menu looked interesting. Most of them featured lemon grass, but I'm not sure about the taste of it. Is it anything like lemon? I'm not a fan of that. Billy had told me about some coconut curry chicken that he had eaten when he had been there before. It sounded really good, so we searched the menu until we found it.
We snacked on Vietnamese rolls while we waited for our lunch. These were similar to egg rolls, but were packed with tiny rice noodles (about the size of fiber optic wires) and occasional bean sprouts and bits of carrot and celery. The dipping "sauce" was a vinegary liquid with small bits of fiery peppers floating in it. It was all really tasty!
My Chicken Curry Bowl was delicious! It was small pieces of stir-fried chicken with lettuce, cilantro, and bean sprouts, cooked in a curry sauce with coconut milk, and served over a bed of rice noodles. We were give more bowls of the same dipping "sauce" as our Vietnamese rolls, but I didn't use any. I had wisely chosen medium instead of spicy. After a few bites, my mouth was on fire! Still, it was too good to leave much in my bowl. Billy chose the Beef Curry Bowl, which was the same thing as mine, just with thin strips of stir-fried beef.
The whole time we were there, we only saw 3 other patrons. One lady came in for take-out, and two other ladies dined in. Apparently I don't need to worry about it closing due to lack of business, though. It's been there for years and years, and the wall in the "lobby" between the two entry doors has several newspaper articles and awards hanging on it. I bet it gets really crowded during the typical lunch hour.
I really enjoyed Mai's Vietnamese Restaurant and my first experience with Vietnamese food. I definitely plan to go back, and while I tend to get in a rut ordering the same thing over and over, I will try something different next time. Maybe even something with lemon grass...